Peering into the Paleo Mist

What do we know about humanity’s Paleolithic past? As a culture, we are aware of the diet inspired by Paleolithic eating habits. We are familiar with some of the art that has survived on durable surfaces for millennia. Anthropologists and archaeologists deduce a great deal from the scant evidence that weathers the eclipsing presence of past and present civilization–evidence that generally stretches back thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of years. But  what we call the “Paleolithic” period (coined by archaeologist John Lubbock in 1865, derived from Greek palaios (παλαιός), “old”; and lithos (λίθος), “stone”, meaning “Old Stone Age”) ran for a very long time–from at least several hundred thousand years to as much as a million or more. Recorded history is an eye blink in comparison.

Our understanding of Paleolithic human culture comes from archaeology and inductive comparisons to modern hunter-gatherer cultures. As far as we can tell, humans hunted wild animals for meat and gathered food, firewood, and materials for their tools, clothes, or shelters. Like contemporary hunter-gatherers, Paleolithic humans probably enjoyed abundant leisure time–something missing in both Neolithic farming societies and modern industrial societies.

But we are guessing. It was not until the end of the Paleolithic that humans began to produce art such as cave paintings, rock art and jewelry, and it is only at the end of the Paleolithic that we find evidence of religious behavior such as burials and rituals. What about the other hundreds of thousands of years? While it is certainly possible that humanity progressed steadily and slowly throughout that span of time, it is clear that if there were rises and falls, there could also have been scores of thousands of years or more between such rises and falls to erase most, if not all, evidence of those peaks and valleys in human prehistory.

Naturally, in the absence of evidence supporting such conjecture, science correctly assumes the opposite. Skepticism is healthy in such endeavors. But that healthy skepticism is what, at the core, is challenged in the romantic suspense novel, Hearts in Ruin. The two key characters, Andrea and Daniel, are young archaeologists. At a controverted site in the New Mexico desert they face evidence, albeit scant, that something more advanced than hunter-gatherer culture existed long before any accepted rise of civilization. Even pursuing the theory is a career risk for each of them, and their views about how to approach it, and the degree of skepticism it warrants, differ greatly.

But regardless of the plight of fictional archaeologists in modern culture, the mist of time that covers the vast majority of the Paleolithic past continues to pique our interest, trigger our imaginations, and challenge our notion of self as we struggle to illuminate our long, elusive past.

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